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Emissions Without Borders: The Problem With Greenhouse Gas

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CHINA COAL PLANT
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We can fence national boundaries with concrete and barbed wire, but unseen CO2 emissions are released into a border-less atmosphere. Right now, we are on track to triple these emissions by century's end.

The last time CO2 levels went sky-high, the planet was probably 18 degrees Fahrenheit hotter, with sea levels approximately 120 feet higher than now. But we were not here then to enjoy the overly sultriness of it all.

Having been around for 200,000 odd years, our only experience with extreme temperature increase was after the last ice age. The planet heated up seven to nine degrees over thousands of years. Can our grandchildren and great grandchildren handle predicted planetary heating that's 10 times faster?

The 2003 heat wave in Europe killed 35,000 people with summer temperatures in parts of France 18 degrees hotter than their 2001 summer.

I do not want to scare the pants off anyone, but....

When leading climate scientist, James Hansen, former head of NASA's Goddard Institute, stresses de-carbonization of energy by 2030 or certain climate catastrophe. I think mitigating emissions pronto would be the rational next step, just in case this very smart climate guy is right.

But as invisible greenhouse gases rise, so does the very visible conflict that swirls around them. In 2007, California Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, took his fight against CO2 emissions to the Supreme Court. He sued the Bush Administration so that California could enact bigger-muscled vehicle emissions laws.

Assembly Bill 32 aims for California's emissions to be 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. In part this will be achieved by the state's ambitious commitment to have 33 percent of its electricity produced by non-CO2-emitting renewable energy by 2020.

The state also runs a tight cap and trade program, which unlike the EU's faltering Emissions Trading Systems is working quite nicely. So far it regulates big industry and the energy sector. Already the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power reports a 22 percent emissions drop (in part by having more renewable energy and less coal on the books) but also because fines for going over emissions caps are hefty.

But while California aggressively cleans up its act, it has no jurisdiction on nations upwind such as China. Or whom China does energy business with. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates 25 percent of the particulate matter in Los Angeles skies originates from Chinese coal-fired power plants. Some of the dirtiest fuel being burned in these power plants is petcoke from U.S refineries.

The EPA has set limits on the domestic burning of petcoke fuel. But this ruling, which lowered overall U.S CO2 emissions, just outsources the emitting location. It doesn't matter whether you're sending it right next door or across the Pacific, the atmosphere is an all-encompassing, amorphous layer of shared gas.

California's unilateral mitigation is a bold step in the right direction. A challenge to the rest of the U.S. But the North American continent seems to have ever-increasing supplies of high carbon fuels and an industry gung-ho on extracting them.

The IPCC's (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) March report reiterated the risks involved without immediate reduction of CO2. The same day Exxon Mobile came out with its own 'carbon risk' assessment. The company assured stockholders, "we are confident that none of our hydrocarbons are now or will become 'stranded.'" Meaning they will be able to extract all the oil and natural gas they want. The company boasted government restrictions were "highly unlikely" to stop Exxon Mobile from oil business-as-usual.

But while Exxon Mobil feels good about the future, there are some cracks in the fossil fuel industry's mitigation-schmitigation façade.

Big coal appears to be running scared of non-CO2-emitting energy sources, going so far as to describe the sun as a "disruptive challenge." Coal produces 40 percent of U.S electricity, solar clocks in at less than 1 percent, with individual rooftop solar panels a tiny fraction of this amount. But small-potatoes rooftop solar is getting some very negative press these days.

"These green energy mandates are bad policy," says Christine Harbin Hanson, a spokeswoman for Americans for Prosperity, an advocacy group backed by oil industry heavy weights.

The AFP is part of recent anti-solar movement that wants states like Kansas and Arizona to slap a surtax on individual rooftop solar. The movement is also pushing states to reduce overall commitments to solar generated energy.

While all the back and forth goes on, the CO2, methane and nitrous oxide go up. Up into an atmosphere that once floated like a big security blanket around our planet. It let just the right amount of heat in and out. But it can no longer effectively let all the heat out. We have unwittingly trashed our collective security blanket.

Mitigation can and is being enacted on local, state, national and international levels, but the sooner it is a coordinated multilateral effort, the more sense it will make. We need to get serious about the reality of our shared geography. We are one people, under one atmosphere.